Understanding Third World Politics: Theories of Political Change and Development

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Institutions are needed to deal with the ever more complex dilemmas of collective action that emerge in a globalized world. The process would be neither easy nor automatic, but the broad direction of travel appeared to be clear. Others stressed the Kantian idea of the gradual but progressive diffusion of liberal values, partly as a result of liberal economics and increased economic interdependence, partly as a liberal legal order comes to sustain the autonomy of a global civil society, and partly as a result of the successful example set by the multifaceted liberal capitalist system of states.

A third group told a US-centred story.

The US was indeed the centre of a unipolar world. But, true both to its own values but also to its rational self-interest, Washington would continue to bind itself within the institutions that it had created in the Cold War era in order to reassure smaller states and to prevent balancing against US power. For others, stability depends on the idea of strategic restraint and the role of institutions in signalling that strategic restraint. A rational hegemon will engage in a degree of self-restraint and institutional self-binding in order to undercut others' perceptions of threat.

The challenge of the Second World had already been seen off. Now, through a mix of these three processes, those states of the old Third World that had previously challenged the western order would now become increasingly enmeshed, socialized and integrated. The s, then, were marked by a clear sense of the liberal ascendancy; a clear assumption that the US had the right and power to decide what the 'liberal global order' was all about; and a clear belief that the western order worked and that it had the answers. Yes, of course there would be isolated rogues and radical rejectionists.

But they were on the 'wrong side of history' as President Clinton confidently proclaimed. Two further points can be noted. First, the concept of emergence itself developed out of precisely this set of ideas. The Brics, after all, were an invention of Goldman Sachs and 'emergence' was seen essentially as a market-driven phenomenon that reflected both deep changes in the structure of the global economy and making the 'right' economic policy choices. Soft power would outstrip hard coercive power in importance and concentrations of liberal power would attract rather then repel or threaten.

Just as the example of a liberal and successful EU had created powerful incentives on the part of weaker and neighbouring states towards emulation and a desire for membership, so, on a larger scale and over a longer period, a similar pattern would be observed in the case of the liberal, developed world as a whole. For others, of course, the history and theory of emerging powers is simple and straightforward.


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International Relations has always been a story of the rise and fall of Great Powers, and will remain so. Classical realists, neo-classical realists, neo-realists and power transition theorists differ as to whether conflict derives more from the actions of revisionist power seeking to remake the rules of international order or from the status quo powers anxious to preserve their power.

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However, within the realist camp there is wide consensus that if new powers are to 'count' globally it will be exclusively through their impact on the global balance of power. International politics is, by definition, the politics of the strong. The categorizations reflect this view: 'revisionist powers', or 'emerging powers' or new 'leading regional states' or 'would-be Great Powers'. These countries may well face immense domestic challenges but these challenges are better understood by looking at earlier rising powers Germany, Japan, the United States rather than to comparisons with other 'southern' or 'developing' states.

Lest this all sound very old-fashioned, realists contest the liberal view of the post-Cold War outlined above and can point to a large number of factors which have indeed pushed global order back in a broadly Westphalian direction. But soft balancing either in the form of attempts to explicitly de-legitimize US hegemony or to argue for alternative conceptions of legitimacy. Still more important, as the s progressed so economic globalization fed back into the structures and dynamics of a Westphalian state system rather than pointing towards its transcendence.

The recent trends in the political system of the third world countries (CH-03)

The state as an economic actor proved resilient in seeking to control economic flows and to police borders, and in seeking to exploit and develop state-based and mercantilist modes of managing economic problems, especially in relation to resource competition and energy geopolitics. The global financial crisis fed into these changes, undermining western claims to technocratic and normative legitimacy.

Finally, the idea of major power clubs and of Great Power concerts came back into political fashion.

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Faced by the intractability of many international crises and by the limits of its own power and of existing international institutions, the United States should, for many analysts, secure its own interests, reduce the range of its burdens, and share the costs of tackling shared challenges by negotiating a new set of bargains with major emerging and regional powers.

This kind of thinking is visible in the language of forming new 'concerts' made up of varying groups and finding new ways of 'organizing for influence' in the new 'great game'. The chairs around the table would be rearranged and the table probably expanded. This kind of analysis implies a number of potentially important things for emerging power behaviour. In the first place, we would expect that securing entry into these formal and informal groupings of major powers will become one of the principal goals of emerging states and would-be major powers. Second, we would expect to see power and power-related interests as a dominant driver of emerging state behaviour, trumping identity claims.

Thus, whilst India may not share Washington's desire for a close alliance, the rise of China made rapprochement with the United States highly desirable, if not unavoidable.

Understanding Third World Politics: Theories of Political Change and Development

Equally, Brazil's lauding of China as a strategic partner has given way to a more balanced approach in the light of Chinese market competition, the impact of Chinese financial policy, and China's doubts about supporting Brazilian claims for United Nations Security UNSC membership. Third, from this perspective, power will come increasingly to dominate the relations between emerging powers and the rest, again whatever the rhetoric of shared southern or regional identity.

Patterns of dominance and dependence will re-emerge but now at this lower level. Fourth, the realist would expect that today's emerging powers will use the normative potential of the system to increase their power and legitimacy. It is entirely natural that they will use the language of procedural and substantive justice in making claims for a greater role within international organizations as with India and Brazil in the World Trade Organization WTO. But, from a realist viewpoint, their own policies need to be understood in similarly relativist and instrumentalist terms.

They are behaving in essentially the same way as did the revisionist states of the s, exploiting both their material power but also, and crucially, the moral resources of the system. Finally, in so far as the more pessimistic expectations of this power-political view are avoided, this is likely to be the result, not of multilateralism but rather of successful major power accommodation.

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The co-option of today's emerging powers into this system, if it is to occur, will be a matter of major power re ordering. The neo-marxist account has been neglected by mainstream western debate but can also be deployed to support arguments about the end of the South. On this view, an excessive focus on the emerging nation-states of the South clouds and confuses the issue.

What we are seeing is, in reality, the transformation of global capitalism from an old core centred on the advanced industrialized states into a far more global and far more thoroughly transnationalized capitalist order. The systemic change has to do with the unfolding of a deterritorialized global capitalism made up of flows, fluxes, networked connections and transnational production networks, but marked by inequality, instability, and new patterns of stratification. Rather than count up and categorize the 'power' of emerging powers, the intellectual challenge is to understand the 'transnational whole' in which such countries are embedded and the social forces and state-society relations that give meaning to the national and developmental projects pursued by emerging country elites.

Old-style notions of North and South have therefore been rendered outdated. The class relations of global capitalism are now so deeply internalized within every nation-state that the classical image of imperialism as a relation of external domination is outdated. Robinson This sort of view picks up on earlier dependency analyses of an earlier period that also questioned the claims to autonomy of the rising developing economies of the s but stresses the now far more strongly global and integrated nature of contemporary capitalism. It does not necessarily depend on a deterministic view of class interests.

Instead it stresses the shifting balance of power between public institutions and private capital and a deep scepticism as to the claims of emerging powers to be seen as trailblazers of new forms of capitalist development that retain a national or nationalist orientation. Unfortunately, return to "nationalist" projects does not deal with the fact that the predominance of private power over public institutions is as much a problem at the national level as it is at the global level.

Private economic elites in the South may not be fully integrated into Robinson and Sklar's "transnational capital class", but differences between their economic agenda and that of capital based in the North seem to be increasingly marginal and diminishing over time. Evans This form of analysis stands as an important analytical corrective to the crude focus on national power so prevalent in discussions of emerging powers; it directs our attention to the nature of state-society relations and to the evolving role of the state within transnational capitalism; and it highlights the continued reality of inequality, poverty, and social exclusion in many parts of the developing world, including within emerging powers.

Each of these narratives can tell us something of importance about today's emerging powers. But they suffer from important limitations and weaknesses. Taken together these limitations suggest that we should be cautious before consigning ideas of the Third World and of the Global South to the dustbin of history. The first reason for caution rests on a rather different reading of the history of the Third World.

Even during the period from the mids to the mids the Cold War was one of several explanatory dynamics. On this account, the calls for an NIEO in the s represented only one element in a much broader historical story, involving the struggle for equal sovereignty, for decolonization, for racial equality and for an equality of cultural status. Critical and post-colonial scholarship has helped to challenge both the idea of an easy dichotomy between the 'West' and the 'Non-West' and also the confident and complacent image of a global international society created via the universalization of essentially European institutions and European understanding of modernity.

Such work has underscored the extent to which the 'West' was itself formed through its long and extremely conflictual engagement with the non-western world; the need to consider the concrete social and political struggles through which western ideas of international order were transposed into different national and regional contexts; 16 and the extent to which the categories of European thought are themselves implicated in the production of a world of hierarchy and domination, however much the specific subjects of domination may be shifting.


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  • Nevertheless it is the intertwining of national and imperial power, of industrialization and western economic success, and of cultural and civilizational hierarchy that sets the crucial historical backdrop for understanding the long-delayed 'emergence' of the non-western world. The 19th century was already full of debates about the changing nature of power and the impact that industrialization and modernization would have on the scale of social and economic organization.

    There was an endless discussion of the powers of the future. Thus Toqueville famously pointed to the rise of Russia and the United States. Imperialists such as Seeley were equally convinced that it was only through empire and the creation of a 'global state' that England could prosper both materially and morally in a world in which Russia and America 'would be on altogether higher scale of magnitude'. Nineteenth century ideas about the changing scale of material power were never just about power and material capabilities.

    Alongside discussions of the impact of the Industrial Revolution there ran a continuous preoccupation with moral, cultural and civilizational factors. These played a crucial role in determining the status of 'great nations' and who was to count in the international pecking order of the future. Within Europe, Marx, Mill, Hegel and many others all believed in a hierarchy of nations with only some possessing the necessary moral character and the historically progressive potential. It is important to note the legacy of 19th century ideas about civilizational hierarchy and the way in which they lived on in the hegemonic presumption of the western world through much of the 20th century.

    For example, the close links between European geopolitical thought and midth century American realism are well known, above all in the work of Nicholas Spykman. However the overt role of racial hierarchy and civilizational difference that had been central to European geopolitical thinking gets downplayed as it crosses the Atlantic. But race and civilization are submerged rather than wholly dislodged until they reappear once more with full force in their Huntingtonian incarnation and the invocation of clashing civilizations.

    Thus, for example, Kennan's view of the regions and states that 'mattered' geopolitically was never a purely clear-headed analysis of the five centres of material power and his assessment of the likely non- development of the Third World was clearly shaped by a view of western cultural superiority and his own crude racial attitudes.

    The axis of history starts in Moscow, goes to Bonn, crosses over to Washington, and then goes to Tokyo. What happens in the South is of no importance. So what does this imply for the analysis of emerging powers today? In the first place, there remains a commonality if not directly in terms of the challengers then certainly in terms of the target of that challenge.

    From this perspective the crucial point is that we are witnessing a challenge to the 'West'. Sometimes the focus is on the West as a historical formation built around the history of European power and its colonial system that was then inherited, transformed and globalized by the United States. Sometimes arguments centre on the US-centred Greater West and the multilateral institutions created in the post period. The language is everywhere ill-defined and fuzzy. But the ubiquity of this kind of language implies that what fundamentally distinguishes today's emerging powers is their historic position outside, or on the margins of, some notion of the West.

    Second, we need to ask about the legacy of historical perceptions of second-class treatment, of subalternity, of marginalization and of subordinate status within an unequal and exploitative global political and economic system. And a central element of Third World foreign policies was the demand for status, for recognition and respect. Alfred Sauvy's original coining of the idea of the Third World concluded with precisely this idea: 'For, in the end, this Third World, little known, exploited, scorned like the Third Estate, itself wants to be something Sauvy But those histories also underpin a struggle for recognition and for recognition of being different rather than of becoming the same; they open the possibility that although the surface language of power may appear similar, that language contains distinctive features.

    A second reason for not equating the end of the Third World with the end of the Cold War looks not backwards in time but rather to those factors that link the s and the contemporary period.

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    Here it is important to see just how closely the dynamics of emerging powers today were directly the products of western responses to power diffusion and relative power decline during the previous 'crisis of the West' in the s. One major response to declining US and western hegemony was to foster, encourage and enforce an aggressive phase of liberal globalization, especially of financial globalization.

    And yet it was precisely the particular character of economic globalization and the debt-fuelled growth that helped to create the conditions both for the successful emerging economies of today and for the current challenges to US and western power and authority. The other central feature of the US policy in the s was to revive a policy of active and aggressive interventionism in the South as part of the Second Cold War.